I remember well the tears and trauma (or maybe just drama) of dropping toddlers off at Sunday school and trying to extricate oneself from clinging arms and screaming mouths, all the while promising that Mommy and Daddy will come back soon. I also remember well the times of serving in the toddler department when other parents were the ones dealing with tears and trauma–the most frustrating thing as a helper was when a parent didn’t leave but hung around and tried to calm their child. That was frustrating because it took much longer for that child to learn to be OK with the temporary separation from their parents, and they never quite gained the same level of trust in their parents. But those children whose parents left even while the child was screaming came to eventually know–not just in theory but in lived experience–that they could trust their parents and take them at their word.
In her song Blessings, Laura Story asks the question: “What if a thousand sleepless nights are what it takes to know You’re near?” Just as a toddler cannot fully know (in experience, not just in theory) that her parents are trustworthy unless her parents allow her to experience the discomfort of temporary separation, so also it seems that we only come to know (in experience, not just in theory) the nearness of God when we experience that nearness night after sleepless night. But if that is the case, then most likely that means that of those thousand sleepless nights, there have been several hundred in which we did not feel God’s nearness, and may in fact have doubted His presence and wondered if He had abandoned us. And then somewhere in that long string of suffering, perhaps in night 732, something finally clicks in our heart and we begin to know that God is indeed present and near, and as those long dark nights continue, the knowledge of God’s nearness moves from mere intellectual assent to the solid conviction of lived experience.
We could add our own questions alongside Laura’s:
- What if this chronic pain is what it takes to know You’re strong?
- What if this job loss is what it takes to know You’re sufficient?
- What if this broken relationship is what it takes to know Your perfect love?
- What if the strain of showing kindness to this unlovely person is what it takes to know Your extravagant mercy?
- What if this dark valley of depression is what it takes to know Your hope that doesn’t disappoint?
A hymn by John Newton in 1779 captures God’s answer to these questions of ours…
I asked the Lord that I might grow
In faith, and love, and every grace;
Might more of His salvation know,
And seek, more earnestly, His face.
‘Twas He who taught me thus to pray,
And He, I trust, has answered prayer!
But it has been in such a way,
As almost drove me to despair.
I hoped that in some favored hour,
At once He’d answer my request;
And by His love’s constraining pow’r,
Subdue my sins, and give me rest.
Instead of this, He made me feel
The hidden evils of my heart;
And let the angry pow’rs of hell
Assault my soul in every part.
Yea more, with His own hand He seemed
Intent to aggravate my woe;
Crossed all the fair designs I schemed,
Blasted my gourds, and laid me low.
Lord, why is this, I trembling cried,
Wilt thou pursue thy worm to death?
“‘Tis in this way, the Lord replied,
I answer prayer for grace and faith.
These inward trials I employ,
From self, and pride, to set thee free;
And break thy schemes of earthly joy,
That thou may’st find thy all in Me.”